More Information about the Poet: John Keats
This is one of the toughest poems I've ever tried to read. There are so many allusions in this poem and how they interplay as images, as symbols, as references, as points, that I just couldn't (cannot) wrap my head around it. But, I wanted to come back and figure it out the best I could. I can only do my best.
But first, this is an Elizabethan sonnet with no line breaks to simulate a continuous movement. So what makes this poem difficult is from the onset the reader and the speaker is in a dream world about a dream world. Meta. Dante's Inferno has so many allusions, so we have to start with the title.
Dante's episode of Paolo and Francesca is in Canto V of the Inferno. Here's some good analysis of the scene, here's the most important piece of information to me:
"Francesca, according to Boccaccio, was blatantly tricked into marrying Gianciotto, who was disfigured and uncouth, when the handsome and elegant Paolo was sent in his brother's place to settle the nuptial contract. Angered at finding herself wed the following day to Gianciotto, Francesca made no attempt to restrain her affections for Paolo and the two in fact soon became lovers. Informed of this liaison, Gianciotto one day caught them together in Francesca's bedroom (unaware that Paolo got stuck in his attempt to escape down a ladder, she let Gianciotto in the room); when Gianciotto lunged at Paolo with a sword, Francesca stepped between the two men and was killed instead, much to the dismay of her husband, who then promptly finished off Paolo as well. Francesca and Paolo, Boccaccio concludes, were buried--accompanied by many tears--in a single tomb. "
So the tricked woman (Francesca) wants to find love, but she was tricked. Dante sympathizes with her plight in the Canto. Now the other portion of the analysis which is quite useful is the explanation of anaphora:
"Francesca's eloquent description of the power of love (Inf. 5.100-7), emphasized through the use of anaphora, bears much the same meaning and style as the love poetry once admired by Dante and of which he himself produced many fine examples. "
Note how this style will come back to the Keat's sonnet.
So we're done with the title. Yes, only the title.
Now we're into the first two lines, "As Hermes once took his feather light, / When lulled, Argus, baffled, swooned and slept, " Now in order to understand these lines, you would need to know the tale of Argus and how Hermes slew Argus by pretending to be a shepherd and lulling Argus to sleep. Why was Argus killed? Argus was holding Io captive from Zeus (Hermes did the dirty work basically).
The following talks about the midst of slumber, "So on a Delphic reed, my idle spright / So played, so charmed, so conquered, so bereft." Here's where the anaphora comes in. Note how the speaker is falling asleep keeping an eye on "my idle spright" the woman just like Francesca describing love through anaphora. But look at how the description of the "spright" is played, charmed, conquered and bereft -- a mixing pot of emotions.
But the next lines (quatrain) goes back to the speaker:
The dragon-world of all its hundred eyes;
And seeing it asleep, so fled away,
Not to pure Ida with its snow-cold skies,
The switch of Greek and Roman gods irritate me the most here, but it could mean a transition in time -- generational "grieving" for a snide day.
But the focus should be on the first two lines which references Argus again and how his slumber not see anything. Now in context to the Paolo and Francesca, note how the male person is asleep and/or grieving to match the female spright who is at a loss. What the speaker is trying to do is connect so many allusions together to comment on them. Note how Jove is grieving for the day for Io but also, "But to that second circle of sad Hell" the circle where Paolo and Francesca are. There's sympathy from foreign gods, the speaker, and Dante on this situation.
The next three lines describe their hell, "Where in the gust, the whirlwind, and the flaw / Of rain and hail-stones, lovers need not tell / Their sorrows. Pale were the sweet lips I saw." Here's the important distinction here. With all the sound and images and allusions, the way to tell separated lovers is the "pale sweet lips." or rather the lack of contact -- as a dream is out of contact with reality.
So the couplet at the end, "Pale were the lips I kissed, and fair the form / I floated with, about that melancholy storm." Is the speaker trying to revive those lips, that love, regardless how forbidden it is. The speaker is willing to connect a love (albiet through him) and go through that lust whirlwind.